Setting up oral exams

I’m teaching Theoretical Mechanics this term and next week we have the first set of oral exams. Each student will take 9 oral exams, but each will only be five minutes long. With only 13 students in the course, each set only takes just over an hour. We’ll devote 9 days of class to this exercise, and I think they’ll be worth every minute.

I was thinking about the oral exams today as I was grading some of the screencast submissions from my students on the “I can derive the Euler/Lagrange equation” standard. A few of them had pretty good derivations, but there were tiny issues that I was disappointed to see that they didn’t nail. My first inclination was to give a “3 improvable” meaning that they could just try to figure out the tiny thing I care about to turn that into a 4 (the highest score on my Frank Noschese rubric). But then I remembered the oral exams and realized that I could give them 4s now but lay into whoever gets that standard for the oral exams next week. Every standard will be done roughly four times next week, so the whole class will be able to hear my tiny issues discussed.

I want to be clear here. I’m not saying that I’m giving them a good score now only to blast them next week. Instead I’m trying to really reflect on my rubric. If I’d brag about it, or it seems they could teach it well, that means they get a four. That’s not the same as saying they can do every single tiny detail that I have learned to watch for after teaching this course six times.

I also thought about the role oral exams play in some of the resource screencasts I make for the students. Today we were talking about applying the Euler/Lagrange approach to multi-dimensional problems and I offered up that I could fill in the details of the derivation if they weren’t super comfortable with just saying “ah, ok, I could believe that you’d get the same equation for every variable.” At the end of the day our “I can” statement was “I can do an interesting multi-dimensional Lagrangian problem” so when I sat down to do the screencast, I realized that it really was only needed if the standard had ended up being “I can derive . . .” But that’s when it hit me that the students who watch study that screencast are going to be much better off if they get that standard in the oral exam. They’ll have a “interesting” problem worked out, but I might just ask why they can use that differential equation in the first place. Is it fair? You bet! They need to know this stuff. They need to know where it comes from and why it matters, not just how to turn the crank.

How do oral exams help your teaching? Here’s some starters for you:

  • I like this approach. I think for my oral exams next time I’ll . . .
  • I’m in this class and I think this is great. I think it especially makes sense for the standard on . . .
  • I’m in this class and I think this is dumb. It’s a double standard! If you want us to know the tiny details, you should lay them all out for us so that we can just read them back for you.
  • What percentage of your students study watch your screencasts?
  • Five minutes! That’s awesome and here’s why . . .
  • Five minutes! That’s ridiculous and here’s why . . .

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in oral exams, syllabus creation. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Setting up oral exams

  1. bretbenesh says:

    Five minutes! That’s ridiculous and here’s why . . .

    How do you do anything in five minutes! I imagine that it would take 90 seconds just to call on the student, have them walk to the front, tell them the standard, and then have them process what they will do.

    Then I would think that it would take 5 minutes for the student to work through the standard.

    Then I think it would take me 3 minutes to comment on it.

    So I am right at about 10 minutes. Where are you efficient that I am not?

    P.S. This sounds awesome, I just doubt that I have the skills to manage it.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      They come with a prepared solution on a single sheet. They project it and then I use my laser pointer to have them explain just 2 or 3 issues on the page. They’re not working through the whole thing. If what’s on the sheet is wrong, they struggle to get better than a 3, but most of the time what’s on the sheet, especially for the “I can derive . . .” standards, is perfectly correct.

      On Tue, Feb 24, 2015 at 9:23 AM, SuperFly Physics wrote:


      • bretbenesh says:

        So your students could totally cheat by copying down someone else’s solution, but this is probably okay because you would catch it in the oral explanation. Is this right?

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        yep, exactly. The most common thing I do is find a negative sign and ask why it’s so. That usually gets the conversation going.

        On Tue, Feb 24, 2015 at 8:20 PM, SuperFly Physics wrote:


  2. ibeatty says:

    Last semester, I did a half-hour oral exam with every student in my Thermal Physics course, outside class time, every week. Sixteen students. It was a phenomenal learning experience for all of us, and it nearly killed me.

  3. Pingback: Physics majors practice presentations | SuperFly Physics

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